Sami al-Arian is a Palestinian born in Kuwait and living in the United States for the last 30 years. He’s married and has five children, all of them American citizens (one of them a graduate of Duke University). Until 2002, al-Arian was a $66,000-a-year tenured professor in computer science at the University of South Florida, where he’d been teaching 16 years. He was also a guest of Karl Rove at the White House in June 2001, part of a Muslim group of activists the White House wanted to thank for their support in the 2000 election: Yes, conservative Muslims in the United States are natural allies of the GOP. The always-expedient George Bush, with Laura, had personally thanked al-Arian for his support during a campaign appearance in Florida, captured in a picture by the St. Petersburg Times. All along, and since 1995, the FBI’s Division of McCarthyism had been on al-Arian’s tail following a television documentary and articles in the Tampa Tribune linking him, by word and image but never by deed, to violent Palestinian causes, jihad, suicide bombers, terrorism.
Note the prejudice of the last sentence: It assumes that because al-Arian supported Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, he was a participant in terrorism. The leap is entirely specious on two grounds: Opinions, including fund-raising, are not deeds (ask the Republican or Democratic Party whose campaign-finance payola system always hides behind the First Amendment). And “terrorism” is itself an incendiary bomb of a word. In a few cases terrorism is clear-cut: willful attacks on civilians with no other immediate goal but to massacre civilians. In most cases terrorism is in the eyes of the beholder, and in most of those cases, the beholder see no further than immediate prejudices, fears, misconceptions and easy slanders. Cue in Bill O’Reilly ambushing al-Arian on the O’Reilly Factor on September 26, 2001. Al-Arian and his mosque in Florida had immediately and unequivocally condemned the 9/11 attacks (as had the mass of Muslims everywhere, though you’d never know it from this side of the American media’s filters). Al-Arian, unaware of O’Reilly’s fetish for slander, thought O’Reilly would query him about those issues. “It was stupid,” Al-Arian would later tell the Washington Post. “I should have known better.”
Al-Arian’s hatred for Israel is well documented. It may be bigoted and anti-Semitic to the core. But it’s not a crime. Besides making it appear as if it were, O’Reilly couldn’t get anything on al-Arian. The best he had was that one of al-Arian’s colleagues who’d worked at USF at his behest left the university and joined Palestinian Islamic Jihad, making al-Arian a “terrorist” by association. That sort of argument would make everyone who befriended Pol-Pot and taught him engineering in Paris in the early 1950s, beginning with those who brought him there on a French scholarship, guilty by association of the Cambodian genocide. Idiotic argument. But no one ever factors intelligence into the O’Reilly equation. Failing on evidence, O’Reilly slandered al-Arian with innuendo:
O’Reilly: “Well, Doctor, you know, with all due respect -- I appreciate you coming on the program, but if I was the CIA, I'd follow you wherever you went. I'd follow you 24 hours ...
Al-Arian: Well, you don't know me. You don't know me. You do not ...
O'Reilly: That doesn't matter. With all of this circumstantial evidence ... I'd go to Denny's with you, and I'd go everywhere you went. We appreciate you coming on. [The transcript is available here.]
With that, death threats to al-Arian began, and so did the witch hunt for al-Arian’s head, led by the disgraceful, O’Reillyesque attacks on the associate professor by University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, who wanted him fired. Genshaft’s justification was that al-Arian was harming his responsibilities to the university’s “interests” (fund-raising, research grants, alumni relations. No word about the university’s foremost interest: academic freedom.) The USF faculty senate and faculty union both voted against Genshaft’s decision to fire al-Arian, and for a time his fate looked no different than that of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian professor at Columbia University who’d been photographed lobbing stones at Israel, from the Lebanese side of a border fence. At Columbia, faculty and student unions wanted Said fired but university trustees stood by him. Plus, he was a superstar.
Leukemia got to Said. The FBI got to al-Arian. He was arrested in February 2003, fired from the university, and locked up, mostly in solitary confinement, for more than two years. His trial began on June 6, ending yesterday as it began: As nothing more credible than if Bill O’Reilly had led the prosecution. There was one difference: Jurors had a chance to make a fair and balanced decision, because they heard all the evidence, something O’Reilly never allows his viewers to do. Jurors heard this instruction from the judge, and made it the deciding factor in their verdict: “Our law does not criminalize beliefs or mere membership in an organization. A person who is in sympathy with the legitimate aim of an organization but does not intend to accomplish that aim by a resort to illegal activity is not punished for adherence to lawful purposes of speech.”
Of course al-Arian is not free. The FBI is looking for ways to retry him on some of the charges that resulted in a mistrial. And the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration brigades, our government’s default setting for vindictiveness, can’t wait to get their hands on al-Arian’s deportation proceedings. The father to five American children who’d led a life no less valuable and interesting and enriching for also being controversial—and a man whose abilities were sought after by this White House—will likely find himself shuttled out of the very country for which he said these words soon after his not-guilty verdict: “God bless America.”
He’s not in free, because the country itself is not in the clear from the witch-hunt mentality that resulted in al-Arian’s arrest in the first place, and many like it (with less just outcomes) across the country. I’ve been picking on O’Reilly, but only because his “Factor” lit the inquisition’s fires. O’Reilly’s likes from Sean Hannity to Joe Sacrborough to talk radio’s chorus of brown-shirted voices daily reduce American discourse to a wasteland. Without so much baseness and baselessness on the air, the nation’s leaders couldn’t possibly be as base and the nation’s liberty crushing laws as baseless, or as popular. You need only read the New York Times’ first paragraph in Wednesday’s front-page article on the trial: “In a major defeat for law enforcement officials, a jury in Florida failed to return guilty verdicts Tuesday on any of 51 criminal counts against a former Florida professor and three co-defendants accused of operating a North American front for Palestinian terrorists.” Why a “major defeat for law-enforcement officials” and not a major victory for free speech, civil rights, due process? Why judge that a jury “failed” by not returning guilty verdicts—why the failure of negatives—rather than the more affirmative emphasis on the not-guilty angle, on al-Arian’s acquittal, on the victory of positive liberty?
Because in the popular interpretation and prosecution of this so-called war on terror, evidence has nothing to do with guilt. Perception is enough. That’s why the jury was hung on several charges. As one juror told the St. Petersburg Times, “Ten of us wanted to acquit them on all charges, but two wouldn’t tell us what the evidence was to convict, but wouldn’t go along with acquittal.” That’s the sobering lesson of the al-Arian story from its beginnings, and the lesson of Patriot Act-America since 2001: We are no longer a society of evidence, fairness and due process, those qualities of law we’re supposedly trying to impose on Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re all guilty until proven innocent.
Al-Arian got lucky. He’s the exception for now, and not much of one. His deportation plane is fueling up. And his prosecutors, Bill O’Reilly-like inquisitors among them, still gang about, as deaf and blind to American principles as a mob of neo-McCarthyites.
Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, and editor of Candide’s Notebooks.